Friday, July 3, 2015

"The Green Road," by Anne Enright

I am sure readers share with me the excitement that we feel when we hear that one of our favorite authors has a new book out. We read reviews, we look for the book at bookstores or libraries, we eagerly look forward to having it in our hands, hoping and believing that it will be as good as or even better than the writer’s earlier books, and at the same time show us new aspects of the author’s repertoire and gifts. That is how I felt when I found out that Irish author Anne Enright had a new novel out, “The Green Road” (Norton, 2015). I loved her most well known novel, “The Gathering” (2007) and her short story collection, “Yesterday’s Weather” (2008), which I posted about here (9/6/11). I felt a little more ambivalent about her 2011 novel, “The Forgotten Waltz,” about which I posted on 11/11/11, but still wouldn’t have missed reading it. “The Green Road,” which I have just read, is at least as good as “The Gathering,” and shares some characteristics with that novel, as it too focuses on an Irish family which has dispersed and then gathers back home during a time of family crisis. In this case, the family home is in County Clare, and consists of a widow, Rosaleen, and her four grown children, along with their various spouses, lovers, and children. One daughter, Constance, lives nearby and is the classic “responsible one.” Another, Hanna, is an alcoholic and a new mother, and lives in Dublin. One brother, Dan, is a gay “spoilt priest” (which must be an Irish term – it means he studied toward being a priest but at some point gave it up) who fled to North America to be far away from his family; he has lived in New York during the 1980s and lost many friends and lovers to AIDS, but he now lives in a settled relationship in Toronto. The other brother, Emmet, has spent most of his adult life working for various charities and NGOs all over the world; the country that is focused on here is Mali. In the first half of the book, each family member gets her or his own chapter of backstory; in the second half, they all come to the family home for what may be their last Christmas there, as Rosaleen is threatening to sell the family home. All four of the children love their mother, but have deeply ambivalent feelings about her. She loves them too, but most of the time manages to make them feel inadequate and somehow in the wrong. Enright’s depiction of these uneasy, painful relationships and interactions is masterful, and frustrating even to read about. She manages to make readers understand and believe both aspects: the love and the unhappiness in their relationships. Each of the main characters (and some of the minor ones as well) is distinct and compelling, but the portrayal of Rosaleen is Enright’s greatest achievement here. The particular Irish small town and countryside settings are essential to the story as well, described with deep understanding and sharp details. The writing is authoritative and just plain splendid at times. I kept turning down corners in my copy. Two of many possible vivid examples: “Constance…did not mind walking through the sportings of rain, pulling the sky into her lungs. Sipping at the world.” (p. 101). “Beauty, in glimpses and flashes, that is what the soul required. That was the drop of water on the tongue.” (p. 165). The last chapter is titled “Paying Attention,” and that is what Enright does in all of her writing. We the readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"The Bookstore," by Deborah Meyler

When I was traveling in Europe last month and saw a novel titled “The Bookstore,” written by Deborah Meyler and published by the evocatively named and illustrious Bloomsbury Reader (2013), I couldn’t resist buying it. Some aspects of the book that appealed to me then and as I was reading the book (besides the title itself!): 1. The author is English, went to Oxford, and did a master’s thesis on Edith Wharton (one of my favorite authors) at St. Andrews (one of the cities I visited last month), and lives in Cambridge (UK). (I'm such an Anglophile...) 2. The author loves Manhattan, where she lived for several years, and this novel takes place there. (I love stories set in Manhattan...) 3. Much of the novel centers around an independent bookstore in Manhattan, one called The Owl. (Readers know how I feel about independent bookstores.) 4. The main character, Esme, is English but is now doing graduate studies in art history at Columbia University (I love the humanities and the academic world, where I have had my own career, albeit on the opposite coast of the U.S.) Besides the bookstore and her studies, Esme’s main storyline is her on-again-off-again relationship with a wealthy New Yorker, Mitchell; the two of them never seem completely in synch, and he gradually reveals himself to be rather cold and manipulative. There are more plot turns and twists related to this relationship, and to another possible relationship, but I don’t want to reveal too much. Esme is a thoughtful, intelligent, likeable character and one whom readers can relate to and enjoy spending time with. The owner and other staff members of The Owl are somewhat eccentric but very sympathetic and engaging, and provide a sort of surrogate family for Esme. I thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Bookstore.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

"Adult Onset," by Ann-Marie MacDonald

My late friend and fellow voracious reader, C., told me a few years ago about the Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald. (I’m the former Canadian, but she had worked in Canada for some years.) I am always glad to know about Canadian writers, as they do not get enough press in the U.S., unless their names are Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood (both of whose work I love and am in awe of). I then read MacDonald’s novel “Fall on Your Knees” and was very impressed. Now I have read her latest novel, “Adult Onset” (Tin House Books, 2014), and my positive impression of her writing has been reinforced. At first, it seems that this may be a typical “woman’s novel” in that it focuses on the overwhelmed and sometimes desperate feelings of a stay-at-home mother who is used to being a career woman. It is a little different from the usual such novel in that the main character, Mary Rose MacKinnon (note the similarity to the author’s own name) is married to a woman, Hilary. But being a lesbian mom is of course in most ways very similar to being a “straight” mom, when it comes to the day-to-day life of mothering small children full time. (I have to mention here that I am very pleased to post about this fictional married lesbian couple in Canada, just three days after the historic United States Supreme Court decision making same sex marriage legal throughout the United States. Hurray for marriage equality!). Mary Rose is an author, but has very little time or energy to write any more, especially since Hilary is often away for her work in theater. But this novel goes beyond the usual “mom” novel in its exploration of the many psychological forces Mary Rose is dealing with, and at times we worry about her psychological balance and safety. The novel alternates between feeling like a lot is going on and then that – excruciatingly – almost nothing happens some days and weeks. Just like real life, in other words. The writing in this novel is crisp, pointed, and vivid. I hope that Ann-Marie MacDonald and her writing will become increasingly recognized in the U.S. as it is already in Canada.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"A View of the Harbor," by Elizabeth Taylor

Another Virago book! Last time (6/25/15) I wrote about Polly Samson’s book “Perfect Lives” and mentioned that it was published by the venerable and revered (by me among others) feminist publisher Virago. By chance, the next book I read, Elizabeth Taylor’s novel “A View of the Harbor” (originally published 1947, republished by Virago in 1987) was from the same press. The Samson book was an example of a contemporary Virago book; Taylor’s book is an example of the Virago’s important work republishing (rescuing) books from the past by excellent women writers. The paperback I just read has a 2005 introduction by the author Sarah Waters, in which she praises Elizabeth Taylor, and says that ironically the author’s sharing a name with the famous movie star may have hurt the author’s reputation and the longevity, of lack thereof, of her work. I have long admired this author’s work, having read (and in some cases re-read) at various times many of her 17 works of fiction (twelve novels and five short story collections). This one, “A View of the Harbor,” takes a classic situation of a small community -- really mainly the occupants of one short street -- in a small town and explores each character, and the characters’ relationships, in detail. The inevitable comparison is with the novels of Jane Austen and of Elizabeth Gaskell. Taylor’s work is deceptively quiet and very insightful. Yes, there are events in the novel, but “what happens” is secondary to the depictions of the characters and their interactions. The main characters are two long time friends, Tory and Beth, who live next door to each other. Beth, a novelist, lives with her husband Robert, a doctor; her 19-year-old rather odd and disaffected daughter Prudence; and her six-year-old rather spoiled daughter Stevie. Tory lives alone, after her divorce from Teddy; her young son Edward is away at boarding school. Down the street are the disabled, gossip-hungry Mrs. Bracey, who is rather a tyrant to her two adult daughters, Iris and Maisie; another neighbor is the widowed Lily, living above and haunted by her family business, a wax museum. Then there is the new man in town – also a classic character in that he is interested in and makes friends with everyone, thus being a good device for revealing their traits and doings. He is Bertram, a suave and basically kind man of about 60 who flirts and connects, but has always avoided commitment in the past; questions in the novel include whether he will continue to do so, and if not, which of the available women he will become seriously involved with. One of the earlier mentioned characters is -- although so beautiful and elegant -- a study in selfishness, carelessness, and callousness; she is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel. The setting itself is of interest; the area of the harbor written about has seen better times, with more summer visitors, but now is somewhat neglected and decayed, as the action has moved to a newer area of town. The time is just post-World War II, so there is a lingering sense of deprivation; some food is still rationed, for example. Taylor also, through discussion of the novel-writing character Beth, slips in some meta-musing on the experiences of writing fiction; Beth sometimes wonders if her writing is really worthwhile, and if it will last, but feels she cannot stop writing, as writing is life itself to her. Readers cannot help but conclude that these thoughts echo those of the author herself. Taylor’s books are dramatic in a low key; her observations and insights are thoughtful and ring true. I recommend them highly, especially if you already appreciate fiction by two other novelist Elizabeths with whom she shares some aspects of sensibility: Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Jane Howard. (One note: Perhaps some readers will remember the 2005 filmed version of Taylor’s novel “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont”; it was a beautifully directed and acted film, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend, and well worth viewing.)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Perfect Lives," by Polly Samson

I had never heard of the British novelist and short story writer, Polly Samson, but recently read a review of her new novel, “Kindness.” That novel is not yet at my local library, but I decided to sample one of her other books, “Perfect Lives” (Virago Press, 2010), a collection of short stories. I thought if I liked it, I would make the effort to find the new novel, and if not, not. Well, this is one of those cases where I am just on the line between yes and no. I enjoyed the stories, and they address some of the big issues – love, family, relationships – and some of the small events of everyday life – that I like reading about. But they seemed a bit “light”; they just didn’t have the substance I prefer. So I haven’t decided yet whether to pursue reading her new book, and perhaps her earlier books. A side note of interest: Samson is married to Pink Floyd member David Gilmour, and has been a co-writer of some of his, and Pink Floyd’s, songs. (My husband and I were great fans of Pink Floyd in the “early years” – theirs and ours!) Another side note, of even more interest to me, is that this book is published by Virago Press, the great feminist British publisher that rediscovered and published many “lost” (or at least badly neglected) women’s writings back in the 1970s and onward. It has undergone various changes in ownership and management, but is still proudly feminist and still publishes work by women and occasionally by male authors writing about feminist or female-related themes. I still remember reading some of the earliest Virago titles in the 1970s and being so grateful to the press for resuscitating and preserving some great writing by women. They included titles by Vera Brittain (whose “Testament of Youth” is now out as a film, one which I saw last week and highly recommend), Antonia White, Christina Stead, Dorothy Richardson, Winnifred Holtby, and many others. As a bonus, and a kind of statement of the value of these books, they were and are beautifully produced, with gorgeous covers.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Our Souls at Night," by Kent Haruf

I was very sad to hear of author Kent Haruf’s death in November 2014 (see my post of 12/4/14). But I was happy to hear that we loyal readers would have one more chance to enter his world, mostly situated in the town of Holt, Colorado, through his posthumously published last novel, completed shortly before his death, “Our Souls at Night” (Knopf, 2015). This is a short novel, one that I read in maybe two hours, but it is a deeply humane and deeply satisfying one. As with his other novels, including “Benediction,” which I wrote about here on 1/1/14, it is deceptively simple, with a beguilingly original premise. Addie, a woman of about 70, visits her neighbor Louis, a man of the same age. Both are widowed. She makes the proposal that he come to her house every night and sleep and talk with her. She is not suggesting a sexual relationship (although sex ultimately enters the picture) but would like the warmth and connection provided by sleeping and conversing together. He is surprised; although they have both lived in the small town of Holt for a long time, and of course know each other, they haven’t been particularly close before. But he is also lonely, and agrees. They carry out the plan, and develop a close, supportive and happy relationship. They ignore some judgmental town gossip about their relationship, and soon it becomes unimportant; some people even quietly support and even envy them. Both their lives open up to more human connection and some mild adventures (trips, picnics and other outings together). In particular, when Addie’s grandchild Jamie comes to stay with her, the three of them – Addie, Louis, and Jamie – develop a close relationship. Unfortunately Addie’s somewhat troubled adult son Gene (father of Jamie) can’t accept her relationship with Louis, and so their relationship is threatened. This novel provides a sensitive treatment of age, loneliness, the importance of human connections, and the complications of family relationships. I won’t, of course, reveal the ending, but will reveal that it is bittersweet. When I closed the book, I again mourned the loss of author Kent Haruf at the age of only 71, and the loss of the possibility of more of his quietly insightful and beautifully written novels. Words like “shy,” “humble,” “muted,” and “tender” are used about the author and his writing; I agree, but hope that such adjectives do not cause potential readers to underestimate or dismiss this gifted writer. To anyone who has not yet discovered this author, I suggest starting with his 1999 “breakthrough” bestseller novel, “Plainsong,” continuing with “Eventide,” “Benediction,” and then “Our Souls at Night.” Or if you like the above description of “Our Souls at Night,” start with that, and I am pretty sure you will want to go back and read all his novels, including the two that preceded “Plainsong.” In any case, I urge you to read this wonderful writer if you haven’t already.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Resurgence of Independent Bookstores!

Despite fears about the disappearance of independent bookstores, the number of such bookstores is actually growing! Hurray! Although the numbers are still way down from a quarter century ago, they have recently been making a comeback. A 5/27/15 San Francisco Chronicle article notes that there were 5,000 members of the American Booksellers Association 25 years ago, the numbers went down to 1,401 in 2009, but are now up to 1,752. The head of the association speculates that reasons for the “revival” of independents include the closing of Borders; the leveling out of book e-sales (“print books have remained the primary medium”); the “buy local” movement; and the passing of ownership of many stores to younger ones with “a whole new sense of energy – they’re more tech savvy and sophisticated. Their energy is contagious.” (I’m not sure about how I feel about this last reason listed;it seems to imply a slight denigration of older owners, but I won’t cavil too much in view of the overall good news.) Let's all remind ourselves of the pleasures of wonderful independent bookstores, get to our local ones more frequently, and buy more books there!
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